Bolivia, part 3: Villa Amboró

It was a stroke of luck that Esteban, the enterprising proprietor of our hostel in Santa Cruz, had a tough 4×4 truck. For a modest price he was willing to take us to a remote jungle camp in nearby Amboró National Park, a place we very much wanted to visit, but which is difficult of access.

Before going there, let’s take a quick look at the history of the park.


As discussed in previous posts, the eastern pre-cordillera (think foothills) of the Andes is a region with rugged terrain including steep slopes, torrential rainfall, and nearly impenetrable vegetation. For those reasons and more the entire area was generally uninhabited until the mid twentieth century when landless peasants fled the overpopulated highlands in search of better lives. The migrants quickly realized that the only possible economic activity, other than logging or placer gold mining, was the cultivation of coca.

None of this bothered then dictator Hugo Banzer. Who cares what nameless faceless peasants do in the jungle? On the other hand, Richard Nixon did care, not so much because coca was being refined into cocaine, but mostly because landless peasants are easy prey for leftist ideologues.

All around the world revolution was in the air and dominos were falling. Big bad boogeyman Che Guevara was running around loose, so something had to be done to prevent Bolivia from becoming another Cuba! So it was that Tricky Dick sent in the CIA to pull some dirty tricks, and the DEA to eradicate the coca which was corrupting our Nation’s youth, and more importantly, funding revolutionary movements throughout South America, wherever that is.

Ignorance of South America was endemic among America’s political leadership throughout the mid 20th century. Some years later, George H. W. Bush’s VP Dan Quayle (the chicken hawk) said, “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.” Even today, I often hear people assert that South America is a country immediately south of Mexico.

These events coincided with the rise of environmental awareness around the world, especially of the ecological importance of tropical forests. Moist montane tropical forests such as the Andean pre-cordillera are the most diverse terrestrial habitats on earth. Bolivia alone is said to be home to between 45% and 55% of the world’s animal biodiversity (Which I doubt). There are said to be over 3,000 species of mammals, reptiles, fishes, amphibians and more than 1,435 birds. The number of insect and other invertebrate species has yet to be counted, and the number of plant species is astronomical.

So, the question arose of how to kill two or more birds with one stone. Is there some way to protect nature while fostering peace? Probably not, for whatever disrupts the quotidian affairs of ordinary people is likely to be beneficial to nature. Sometimes even war can be useful as a tool for conservation.

“Sometimes even war can be useful as a tool for conservation.”

Quoth the Weazel

For example, in the 1970s Thailand was experiencing a communist insurgency. A harsh crackdown by the then current dictator drove the rebels into the remaining areas of wild jungle. The “rebels” included innocent college students who had fled for their lives. They somehow persevered despite being unable to hunt because gunshots would have alerted the army to their presence, as would any plots cleared for agriculture. Thus, the jungle was left pristine. No one was allowed in or out by either side. The stalemate continued for many years until the wise Thai King pardoned them all. In honor of their struggles their previous hideouts were proclaimed national parks. Today those national parks are the crown jewels of Thailand, and have been visited by millions of people from around the world.

Back in Bolivia, a few wise men and women, most notably the great Bolivian biologist Noel Kempff, realized that the converging interests of conservationists and government officials could be used to justify the creation of a system of national parks and protected areas throughout the country, especially in the sparsely populated pre-cordillera.

By restricting access to these remote areas the government could reduce the coca trade, and deny refuge to revolutionaries. Most importantly, protected areas qualify for international funding by do-gooders. Perhaps we could even get carbon credits? Tweety birds and other life forms would prosper simply because no one was there.

So it was that in 1984 Amboró National Park was created, along with adjacent Carrasco National Park. The sum of these two areas alone was over 4866 square miles of protected wilderness, a stunning conservation success!

There was one problem. Though the interior of Amboró had few if any people, the periphery of the protected area had small settlements of recently arrived migrants from the highlands. Their rights had to be respected or the deal was dead.

In order to prevent outright rebellion the government reduced the size of the strictly protected area, and declared that those areas with previous human impact would henceforth be referred to as “Integrated Management Natural Areas”. That meant the Indians could continue to graze their cattle and grow food, but that commercial logging, mining, and other large scale destructive activities would remain forbidden. Similar arrangement were made for Indian reservations elsewhere.

When Evo Morales became president in 2005, his first order of business was to tax extractive industries and wealthy landowners, especially those in Santa Cruz. Instead of pocketing the money as he was expected to do, Evo actually used the tax revenues to help the poor. Damned Commie!

One of Evo’s programs was to provide schools and infrastructure in remote communities such as those within the newly proclaimed integrated management areas adjacent to National Parks.

Communities that were willing to respect Park rules such as a prohibition against hunting in the strictly protected areas, and who wished to form a management cooperative, were given funding and material assistance in the building of ecotourism facilities within the integrated management areas.

So it was that the Villa Amboró Community Eco-Lodge came into existence.

Food, lodging, and guide services available!

It was a great start, but the problem remained of how to get there. Though close to Santa Cruz as the crow flies, no public transportation reached the remote Indian village of Villa Amboró, much less the Lodge itself which is located a mile from the village on the edge of the deep jungle.


Back at the Hostal 360 Grados we loaded Esteban’s 4×4 Ford raptor with a large amount of food and many gallons of potable water. Esteban had told us that the Indians would willingly give us all they had, but that might not be much. They would be very pleased if we brought gifts of food and school supplies, so we did.

A normal vehicle cannot reach Villa Amboró under the best of circumstances, but the Ford Raptor was not daunted by bad roads, or even rivers, so we took the shortest possible route. Our biggest problem was escaping the chaotic grid locked streets of Santa Cruz, a city utterly devoid of traffic laws.

After leaving the city we entered a desolate scrub zone that closely resembled parts of Florida. The tiny rutted road passed through areas of deep sand that would stop any normal vehicle. The original vegetation had long since been replaced by cow eaten scrub.

After about an hour we arrived at the small town of Terebinto, so named for terebinth, a type of Pistachio mentioned in the bible. We stopped for a snack and a cold drink at a small tienda across from the plaza where Esteban was well known. The friendly owner invited us to pet his pet peccary. Huh?

Though not true pigs, Peccaries are fierce boar like animals indigenous to the new world. They run in herds and are justly famous for their sharp teeth and bad disposition. They constantly argue among themselves, clacking their tusks and snorting with anger, but when confronted they present a united defense against an intruder, and can be very dangerous when encountered in the jungle. (More on that later). I couldn’t imagine having one for a pet!

A Collared peccary, image courtesy

We walked around the back of the tienda to behold a pack of mangy dogs, several kids, and a pet peccary all playing together peacefully. They all rushed up in a friendly manner to beg for food and a pet on the head (Which I declined!) The pig thought it was a dog!

Shortly after leaving Terebinto we reached the Rio Beso (Kiss river), but there was no bridge. Esteban drove across with no problem, as had many others. Half an hour later we reached the Río Surutú, a much larger river, but again crossed it with no difficulty. What if the rivers had been high? Are these small villages cut off from civilization during the rainy season?

After crossing the Rio Surutú the landscape began to change from sandy scrub to jungle, and we could see the dark green mountains looming ahead.

Villa Amboro, not to be confused with the eco-lodge of the same name, is a tiny village of thatched huts inhabited by Quechua people who migrated from the highlands about thirty years ago. The indigenous lowland tribes have long since been eradicated from the region.

The public buildings such as the school were all built of ugly masonry, but they were new, and had running water, toilets, and even electricity! All of these improvements were thanks to Evo.

We were received with big smiles. Esteban speaks fluent Quechua, and is well respected in the village as someone who brings paying customers to the lodge, never cheats, and helps out the local people whenever he can. He explained that we would be staying at the lodge for a week, had all our own food, and didn’t require guide services.

“You may already have everything you need Señor, but our coffee is the best in the world, so please accept this package as a gift. When you arrive at the lodge all the fruit you could possibly eat will fall at your feet.” Truer words were never spoken!

The collective promised to send someone every morning to check on us, but to otherwise leave us alone. This was especially generous of them since by law a guide is required for anyone who enters a National Park. They could certainly use the money, but if Esteban requested an exception, so be it!

We continued for a mile through agricultural lands rich in cattle, fruit, and coffee until we reached the edge of the jungle and a barbed wire gate. A small road led from there through deep forest to the lodge at the foot of the mountain.

The road to the lodge

We were delighted to discover a small but well maintained compound consisting of several thatched huts including a dormitory with a comfy bed, and a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, and running water. There were even flush toilets! It was rustic deluxe, all for a big $14.50 per person per night!

Lorenza by the kitchen

We were greeted by Lorenza Tenorio, a formidable but friendly woman who was the head of the collective. The indigenous women of Bolivia are not shrinking violets, they are big and strong, consider themselves equal to any man, and are often the breadwinners of their families. Lorenza was very businesslike and ran a tight ship. She even offered to prepare a traditional dinner any time we liked!

My photos do no justice to the abundance of citrus trees that graced the grounds. There were numerous delicious varieties, and the weight of the fruit threatened to break the branches. Every morning there were hundreds of pounds of fruit laying on the ground, and shortly thereafter a herd of docile Brahman cattle would arrive to clean it all up while mowing the lawn.

Should one wish to snooze, there was a pavilion with comfortable hammocks!

There was one big problem, it was too damned cold to snooze in the shade, 70F or less; so Ann, who was exhausted from travel, simply plopped down among the cow pies to bask in the sun.

The sign says, “camping area”.

Behind my prostrate sweetie you see a big toborochi tree (Ceiba speciosa) with pink blossoms. Birds of many species, including brilliant toucans and macaws, would come to tear apart the blossoms and nibble the citrus pulp left behind by the cattle. There were even friendly capuchin monkeys! Without binoculars, and a telephoto lens for my point and shoot camera, it was difficult to fully appreciate, much less record, the arboreal spectacle that happened every morning.

A friendly Capuchin monkey

How could it be that wildlife was so abundant near an Indian village? Why wasn’t that monkey in a stewpot, or at least running for its life? Why hadn’t the macaws been turned into pets, or the toucans into feathered headdresses?

If the original indigenous inhabitants were still here there wouldn’t be a monkey for miles, but the current inhabitants are civilized Quechua people from the highlands where hunting is not a tradition.

After everyone left there was nothing more to do than to relax after a week and a half of hard traveling. I plucked some luscious mandarins and mashed them into my big tin cup along with a bit of raw sugar, then filled the cup with jungle water. (We had been assured that the water was good, and it was.) I topped it off with a stiff shot of Flor de Caña rum, my favorite, and the only good thing to ever come out of Nicaragua. I burned a bowl of Bolivian gold as the sun went down, and was content.


In the morning we discovered that the water had stopped flowing, and that the valve to the gas stove was rusted shut. A nice young man arrived to tell us that the water supply had been disrupted, probably by a falling branch, but that it would be fixed as soon as possible. Such things happen all the time. He used a rock to beat the propane tank valve in the hope that it could be opened, but in vain. I was surprised that it didn’t explode.

I needed a machete to cut firewood, and normally carry one, but this time I had only a small folding saw; so, the young man unlocked the tool shed to retrieve a machete that was as dull as a soup spoon. There was no file, so he walked over to a perfectly round rock that he called “God’s soccer ball”, and used it to sharpen the machete. I was astonished that it worked. He explained that there were no other such rocks anywhere, so God must have given it to them as a gift.

God’s soccer ball with the dining hall beyond. Clearly a cosmic alignment to please Pachamama.

I was pleased to learn that most indigenous Bolivians, though nominally Christian, are not fundamentalist fanatics, as are the Mennonites, and so many other peasant cultures throughout Latin America. They can take it or leave it, and many still profess a belief in Pachamama. If God gives you a good rock, it is Pachamama, not Jesus, who did it. Go Mama!

After the young man left it was time to take care of business. By that I mean personal business. The water wasn’t running so the toilet didn’t work. No problem. Ann and I are both well accustomed to wandering off into the bush.

Just beyond the gate there was a patch of scrubby cow eaten jungle. I found a small opening therein and walked around in a circle, as does a dog, then trimmed away a few vines with my Swiss army knife. Satisfied that I had found the perfect peaceful spot, I unbuckled my pants and began to squat. As I did, I looked down between my legs. There, less than three inches from my feet, was a rattlesnake! Had I squatted down a bit further my warm juicy dangling boy bits would have made a perfect target for a heat seeking pit viper in search of low hanging fruit!

My new friend, in situ, exactly where I first saw it!

Crotalus durissus terrificus, known as cascabel in Spanish, or neo-tropical rattlesnake in English, is one of the deadliest snakes on earth. The name says it all. Crotalus is the genus to which most rattlesnakes belong, “durissus” is Latin for extremely tough, and “terrificus” means absolutely terrifying.

The cascabel closely resembles our familiar diamondback, but the venom is much more deadly due to the neurotoxic components. In a study of Brazilian snakebite victims the death rate for untreated bites was 72%. Throughout Latin America only the dread Fer-de-lance (Bothrops sp.) kills more people. If my bathroom buddy had bitten me in the balls in such a remote location I would surely have suffered an agonizing death. (Unless of course I had immediately castrated myself! Can you imagine a tourniquet?)

The cascabel has the largest distribution of any pit viper. Their range is discontinuous, but various subspecies may be found from northern Mexico all the way to central Argentina. Like the diamondback, they prefer open dry terrain, so I hardly expected to discover one at the edge of the jungle. I had hoped to find one on our trip, just not between my legs!

Needless to say I jumped up with great alacrity and hopped away with my pants around my ankles. “Excuse me Sir! I meant no disrespect, it was not my intention to drop a turd on your head!” I ran back to our nearby hut to grab my camera. When I returned it hadn’t moved an inch. To my amazement it never rattled, even when I poked it with my walking stick.

Why hadn’t I been bitten? I would prefer to think it was professional courtesy, but a more likely explanation was that it was the weather, for a cold southerly wind had been blowing in from Antarctica ever since we arrived in Bolivia. It was the first and only snake that we found on our six week long trip. What a way to start our first full day in the jungle!

Allow me to digress to describe what I mean by jungle. Life zone ecologists and other such academic nit pickers may wish to subdivide ecosystems in various ways, but I am using the word in its popular sense to describe tropical broadleaf evergreen forest with large trees and characteristic “jungle” species.

One might argue that rattlesnakes do not inhabit the jungle, and it is true that there are none deep in the Amazon basin, but no one informed my non ball biting buddy that he was inhabiting an ecotone between true rainforest and dry tropical forest as exemplified by the nearby thorny gran chaco.

The forests around Villa Amboró may not be as lush and tall as those of the Amazon; but as you will see, they are structurally similar to true rainforest, and have many of the same charismatic species of plants and animals that naturalists such as myself are willing to travel halfway around the world to see.

The wind finally dropped, and the day became warm and sunny, so I decided to explore the grounds. At the edge of the clearing I discovered a trailhead with the following sign.

Ecotourism trails

Not a detailed map to say the least! The presumption is that anyone who goes past the sign will be led by a guide who knows the trails.

I prefer to think that I can follow any trail, but as soon as I set foot in the forest I began making mistakes. Behind the sign a well beaten trail led down to Quebrada Tatucitos, the beautiful jungle stream that ran past the lodge. It quickly came to a dead end at a muddy pool. Huh? I had followed a cow trail to a watering hole. How embarrassing!

There were several other obvious trails to choose from, but all proved to be superhighways constructed by leafcutter ants. Bits of leaf scattered everywhere should have been a dead give away.

Leafcutter ants on a rope, image swiped from Wiki

For those who don’t know, leafcutter ants are more civilized than most people. They are large scale agribusiness fungus farmers who live in cities with millions of inhabitants, build extensive road systems as wide as cow trails, practice the division of labor, and exhibit collective intelligence. They are a scourge to human farmers.

Leafcutter worker on the left, soldier on the right. Credit: Caitlin M. Carlson

Though generally inoffensive, the leafcutter soldier caste has fearsome warriors with enormous mandibles. I was admiring them from a safe distance when I suddenly became aware that I was under attack by thousands of unrelated ants that were so small I could barely see them. The micro marauders were behaving like army ants and were trying to eat me. There was nothing to do but run!

At last I found the actual trail. It should have been obvious.

The main trail

As soon as I entered the forest I became enveloped by a cloud of thousands of Heliconid butterflies. Among them flitted beautiful blue morphos and clearwings. All were moving much too fast for my limited photographic skills, so allow me to show you examples from the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the interior of which I am proud to have designed and constructed in its entirety.

Some sort of Heliconid?

Some sort of Heliconid?

The Heliconids are an extremely diverse group. The one thing they have in common is that they all taste bad. As a result, other more palatable unrelated species are engaged in a complex evolutionary struggle known as Batesian mimicry. Those yummy unrelated species so closely resemble Heliconids that I have no idea whether the butterflies shown above are the real thing or not.

A blue morpho
A clearwing
The Butterfly Rainforest

Fooled ya! The photo above wasn’t taken in a real jungle. It is a vignette from the Butterfly Rainforest. Patient reader, if you have read my scribbulations thus far you are doing better than most; so, I invite you to be my personal guest at the Butterfly Rainforest the next time you are in Gainesville!

This, on the other hand, is the real jungle. As you can see, it isn’t nearly as pretty as my fake jungle!

A buttressed tree in Amboró National Park

As I wandered through the forest I indulged in romantic fantasies. If this was really the real jungle where were the big scary wild animals? Could there be big cats? Surely there were none so close to an Indian village. At that moment I happened to look down.

Puma tracks

It can difficult to distinguish puma from jaguar tracks, but the somewhat pointed toes without claws indicates that these were probably left by a puma rather than a jaguar. A puma is exactly the same animal as a mountain lion or a Florida panther. I was later to discover that pumas were common almost everywhere we went in Bolivia.

I continued my easy hike through clouds of butterflies to the Cascada Maravilla. It would have been a marvelous little waterfall if the water had been flowing, but the cold dry season was upon us and it was dry as a bone.

It was a great first full day in the jungle, but it ended with a thud.

While we were away the water system had been repaired, but the propane tank was still inoperable; so, at sunset we headed into the jungle to collect firewood to cook dinner outside. I piled up rocks to support the pot, pulled up some chairs, and we had a fine repast.

After dinner I was sitting by the fire enjoying another drink while Ann gave me a glorious foot massage. Suddenly, I discovered that I was face down on the ground. Though I was in a contorted position I felt oddly comfortable. Far away I could hear Ann asking, “Can you hear me?” as she pulled my feet out of the fire. I replied that I was fine, I was just taking a delightful dirt nap. That did not fully reassure her, so she checked my vital signs.

After I managed to untangle myself I discovered that I had several injuries in inexplicable places. My left knee had smashed against a rock, and I had pulled a muscle in my back which hurt very badly. By some miracle my head had fallen on soft ground between two sharp rocks. Had my head landed a few inches on either side my skull would have been crushed.

Ann, who is a doctor, was deeply concerned, not so much by my injuries, but by the fact that I had passed out for no good reason. (I only had two drinks!) I shrugged it off by misquoting Rocky Raccoon, “Weazel you met your match’. Weazel said, ‘Doc, it’s only a scratch, and I’ll be better, I’ll be better, Doc, as soon as I am able”.

By morning I was sore but otherwise fine. The young man returned to hammer open the propane valve, and to make sure the water was running properly. I topped off my recovery with a big breakfast of bananas, sardines, rice, and a cup of the world’s best coffee. Locally grown!

Ann and I set out through another cloud of butterflies to explore the trail to the “Piscinas de los Tatucitos”, the swimming pools of the little armadillos.

As we walked silently through the forest we were challenged at every turn by various birds that all screamed in their own special way, “Intruder! Intruder! Intruder!” The boldest and most raucous was a magnificent toucan. I had seen toucans before, but never with an unobstructed view.

Toucan, courtesy Charles J. Sharp

The trail followed the stream as it tumbled down the mountain. After about a kilometer we reached our water source, a crystalline tributary that had been diverted into a crudely made concrete tank. A buried black plastic pipe led from there back to the lodge. It was obvious that it had been repaired many times, for some sections had been ripped out by floods, and in other places the pipe had been crushed by falling trees. The water was cool and good.

Dr. Ann at the beginning of the travertine falls.

As we ascended the canyon the stream became a series of pools interrupted by small travertine waterfalls. I was surprised that there were so few fish, only a few minnows in the deeper pools. We were at the southwestern headwaters of the Amazon basin, the most ichthyologically diverse place on earth. A local later explained that it was due to annual drought, the fish simply dried up.

I found this explanation hard to believe. In North America we have fish, especially Salmonids, swimming up waterfalls thousands of miles from the ocean. How could the same not be true in South America?

I was equally surprised that on a previous trip to Peru, 1200 miles to the northwest, I found few fish in the foothills of the Andes. I have no explanation, other than that the Andes are so young that there has been no time for adaptation. Be that as it may, the foothills of the Andes are old, and speciation happens rapidly in new resource rich environments, so I attribute the lack of observable fish to the same piscatorial curse that prevents me from catching redfish, bass, or any other fish.

Dr. Ann traversing the travertine ledges

I was puzzled by the presence of travertine, though it was of low quality and barely worthy of the name. I am fascinated by travertine because it is the only kind of rock, other than cave formations, that actually grows. Everything else erodes. Travertine is often deposited by hot springs rich in calcium carbonate, but I saw no sign of that here. The surrounding mountains were composed of limey sandstone, so I suppose that calcium rich water simply oozes out of the ground. That alone would not be sufficient to create travertine, but in tropical areas autotrophic cyanobacteria deposit travertine as a metabolic byproduct, so it can be said that travertine is alive!

When we reached the Piscinas de los Tatucitos (Swimming holes of the little armadillos) Ann decided to emulate the lucky little dillers and take a dip.

Ann at the Piscinas de los Tatucitos

There were several of these beautiful pools to choose from. Ann so loved the place that she returned alone several times over the following days to enjoy the jungle solitude. I couldn’t help thinking of her as Rima the jungle girl from the wonderful book Green Mansions, an innocent forest nymph unafraid in her own private paradise. Unlike Rima she didn’t dress in a gown made of spider silk; in fact, she didn’t dress at all.

Audrey Hepburn as Rima the jungle girl wearing her gown of spider silk

I have a special interest in Gesneriads, a family of tropical herbaceous plants with beautiful blossoms. So it was that I was delighted to see that the edge of the stream was lined by lovely Gloxinias with bright orange blossoms.

Seemannia (Gloxinia) sylvatica
Seemannia Image swiped from Wiki

There were various other beautiful flowering species that I couldn’t identify.

Perhaps a Calliandra?

We continued on until we reached the base of a magnificent waterfall about one hundred feet tall. The flow was low due to the dry season, but it was still a beautiful place.

Our hero at the base of the falls

The trail continued but we turned back. It had been a wonderful day of exploration and discovery.

Back at the lodge Lorenza, her daughter, and her daughter’s boyfriend were waiting for us with a freshly plucked chicken. Since we were not hiring guides, we thought it best to provide some additional income to the local people by ordering a home cooked meal. It was tasty, but being free range, the meat was so tough and stringy that we could use it for dental floss.

Lorenza cooking our diner

The young woman was quite pretty, not having yet attained her mother’s girth. A parrot rode on her shoulder everywhere she went, and it later joined us for dinner. Her fiancé was an exceptionally intelligent young man. I was surprised to learn that he was Aymara, not Quechua. Given human nature one might expect two different tribes to be at each other’s throats, but they live, and intermarry, amicably. Perhaps that is because they have a common enemy? (Look into the mirror to find out who that is!)

The following morning we set out again on the trail to the pools of the little armadillos. This time we continued past the turnoff to the base of the waterfall. The trail became increasingly steep, and eventually brought us to the base of a cliff, and a scary looking wooden ladder. With much trepidation we ascended, but the ladder was strong. At the top of the cliff the trail forked. The right fork led to the top of the waterfall, but required a slippery down climb to reach the brink of the precipice. The view was magnificent!

The view from the top of the waterfall

After admiring the view Ann returned to the piscinas to bathe. I followed the left fork to the top of the mountain then down for about a kilometer. It was evident that this was the loop trail shown on the crude map.

Over the following days Ann returned alone to the pools, while I continued to explore the area above the falls.

The stream above the falls

I waded upstream above the falls until I found a barely discernable trail that continued up the mountain on a steep ridge. I realized that it was the first cut of a proposed loop trail that would reach a mirador high atop the tallest peak in the area. The trail had never been finished. I reluctantly turned back. It is better to walk slowly and see clearly than to hike fast to reach an arbitrary goal and see little. Nevertheless, I still wish I had made it to the top!

After several days of exploring the basin of the Quebrada de los Tatucitos Ann and I decided to explore the much longer trail along the Rio Mucuñucu, a tributary to the Río Surutú, the Yapacaní, the Mamoré (Which we will visit in a later post), the Guaporé, the Madeira, and thence to the mighty Amazon and the sea, a journey of almost 4000 miles. Try to imagine a river longer than the entire United States is wide. Though not at a high elevation, we were at some of the remotest headwaters of the world’s greatest river.

A graded road passed through a settled area to an abandoned Park guard station complete with a jail. From there a trail led through the jungle to the Rio Surutú where it disappeared into the rocky riverbed.

The Rio Surutú

Other than a few footprints in the sand, there was no indication of where the trail might be. It is much easier to walk on a soft jungle trail than in a rocky streambed, especially when wearing sandals. There was no cure for it, so we just rock hopped our way up the river. Along the way I found the tracks of another puma, and several lesser beasts.

There were said to be small caves somewhere further up the river, but we had no idea of where they might be. These caves were said to contain both bats, and guácharos​ (Steatornis caripensis), also known as oilbirds. These strange creatures are large nocturnal frugivorous birds that live in caves and ecolocate like bats. The squabs are said to be so fat that you can put one on a stick and use it for a torch. I searched the banks carefully looking for a side trail but found nothing. Eventually Ann grew tired of walking on cobbles and decided to turn back.

Ann waves goodbye

What a brave sweetie I have! How many women would voluntarily set out alone along a jungle river? We had come some distance, and there was no easy way to find the tiny turnoff to the trail home. One stretch of scrub covered riverbank looks much like another. She had no trouble finding her way back but I did!

I was too stubborn to turn back, so I continued on for several more miles. The day was getting late, so I eventually turned around just as things were getting interesting. I was very disappointed that I had found neither the trail nor the caves.

Where I turned around

It was well after dark when I got back. I had walked twelve miles in sandals over slippery rocks and was exhausted. Ann had been a bit worried, but not much. She has long been accustomed to the fact that I often wander into the wilderness with no plan, and may or may not return. If I had still been missing by morning she would have enlisted the Indians to form a search party.

We had spent a wonderful week peeking into the wilderness, but it was time to head back to Santa Cruz. That part was easy. The Indians have cell phone service in their remote village even though I have none at home in Gainesville, Florida. That evening I found a friendly fellow who called Esteban, and the next afternoon he arrived to take us back to the Hostal 360 Grados.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of our thrilling adventure as we head into the high Andes to visit Torotoro, land of dinosaurs!